Breast Cancer Clinical Trial Targets Cancer Stem Cells


Even though my previous posts about cancer stem cells have generated very little interest, understanding cancer as a stem cell-based disease has profound implications for how we treat cancer. If the vast majority of the cells in a tumor are slow-growing and not dangerous but only a small minority of the cells are rapidly growing and providing the growth the most of the tumor, then treatments that shave off large numbers of cells might shrink the tumor, but not solve the problem, because the cancer stem cells that are supplying the tumor are still there. However, if the treatment attacks the cancer stem cells specifically, then the tumor’s cell supply is cut off and the tumor will wither and die.

In the case of breast cancer, the tumors return after treatment and spread to other parts of the body because radiation and current chemotherapy treatments do not kill the cancer stem cells.

This premise constitutes the foundation of a clinical trial operating from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and two other sites. This clinical trial will examine a drug that specifically attacks breast cancer stem cells. The drug, reparixin, will be used in combination with standard chemotherapy.

Dr. Anne Schott, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and principal investigator of this clinical trial, said: “This is one of only a few trials testing stem cell directed therapies in combination with chemotherapy in breast cancer. Combining chemotherapy in breast cancer has the potential to lengthen remission for women with advanced breast cancer.”

Cancer stem cells are the small number of cells in a tumor that fuel its growth and are responsible for metastasis of the tumor. This phase 1b study will test reparixin, which is given orally, with a drug called paclitaxel in women who have HER2-negative metastatic breast cancer. This study is primarily designed to test how well patients tolerate this particular drug combination. However, researchers will also examine how well reparixin appears to affect various cancer stem cells indicators and signs of inflammation. The study will also examine how well this drug combination controls the cancer and affects patient survival.

This clinical trial emerged from laboratory work at the University of Michigan that showed that breast cancer stem cells expressed a receptor on their cell surfaces called CXCR1. CXCR1 triggers the growth of cancer stem cells in response to inflammation and tissue damage. Adding reparixin to cultured cancer stem cells killed them and reparixin works by blocking CXCR1.

Mice treated with reparixin or the combination of reparixin and paclitaxel had significantly fewer (dramatically actually) cancer stem cells that those treated with paclitaxel alone. Also, riparixin-treated mice developed significantly fewer metastases that mice treated with chemotherapy alone (see Ginestier C,, et al., J Clin Invest. 2010, 120(2):485-97).